Kurtág plays with semiotics in ever-varying work

Composer György Kurtág
Composer György Kurtág

On Wednesday, violinist Christian Tetzlaff performs a solo recital at Tanglewood including selections from György Kurtág’s “Signs, Games and Messages.” Actually, any performance of the work is selective: Though the pace has slowed, Kurtág, 89, has collected and continued to expand identically-titled sets for nine different solo instruments as well as small ensembles. (And similar titles turn up elsewhere — witness Kurtág’s ongoing collection of “Játékok” (games) for piano, eight volumes’ worth and growing.) The “Signs, Games and Messages” are short, some less than a minute. Some are tributes (homages to J.S. Bach and John Cage, for instance), some are musical greetings to friends and colleagues, some are occasionally rascally études, quickly expounding on an instrumental technique or sound.

The “Signs” may be of an occasional nature, but their collective title implies headier intellectual concerns. Any reference to “signs” and “messages” invokes semiotics, the study of signs — words, gestures, anything used to communicate — pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce (in the United States) and Ferdinand de Saussure (in Switzerland), and propelled into fashionability by postwar French structuralism. In particular, Saussure’s emphasis on both the arbitrary nature of signs and the sound of language seem to echo in Kurtág’s miniatures. “The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name,” Saussure wrote, “but a concept and a sound-image.” Kurtág repeatedly suggests such unifications: close-packed half-steps as seething tetchiness in “Zank-Kromatisch” (“Chromatic Squabble”), or a comparative survey of sobbing vibrato in “Klagendes Lied” (“Tragic Song”).

But the mention of “Games” pushes into more provocative semiotic territory. On the surface, many of the pieces are just that, invented games, imposed musical rules that briefly play out. But the term also evokes philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language-games — of which music is an especially elusive example, its notation and jargon comparatively precise and closed, its meaning fluid and open. And Kurtág’s taxonomic focus on particular techniques, the transfer from notation into performance, hints at, say, the post-structuralist semiotics of Umberto Eco, which brings the reader-viewer-listener into the equation, exploring (as Eco has written) “how and under which conditions the addressee of a given text is entitled to collaborate in order to actualize what the text already says.”


In “Signs, Games and Messages,” both players and listeners are such addressees, each interpreting the “given text” in their own ways — a variance the pieces often highlight and even exploit. Kurtág’s is a music accentuating the robustly fragile chain from composer to score to performer to audience. Matthew Guerrieri

Christian Tetzlaff performs music of Ysaÿe, Bach, Kurtág, and Bartók at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, Lenox, on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $18-$54. 888-266-1200,

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at